Thursday, September 2, 2010

'I Remember Better When I Paint'

The creative arts are an avenue to tap into
the nonverbal, emotional place in a person. When 
[patients are] given paint, markers, any kind of media for 
art-making, and their hands are involved,
and their muscles are involved, things are tapped
in them that are genuine and active and alive, 
so the creative arts bypass the limitations
 and they simply go to the strengths. 
People still have imaginations intact, all the way 
to the very, very end of their progressive disease.
~ Judy Holstein, CJE,
Director, Chicago Senior Life Day Center

Research is showing increasingly that ongoing participation in the creative (and especially visual) arts — drawing, painting, and dancing, in addition to weekly visits to art museums — can help enrich the lives of persons with dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or other severe memory problems, allowing them continued meaningful interaction with caregivers and family members.

One real-life example of art's power to transform is found in the story of Hilda Gorenstein, who called herself "Hilgos" and enjoyed a 75-year-long artistic career with international recognition. Hilgos suffered in late life with profound memory loss and had been placed in a nursing home, where, her daughter Berna Huebner says in interviews, she became apathetic, withdrawn, and agitated. Huebner, trying to make and sustain a connection, relates how one day she asked her mother if she wanted to paint. Hilgos replied, "Yes, I remember better when I paint." So Huebner recruited art students to visit Hilgos and after some time both physical and mental changes in Hilgos became obvious. By the time she died at age 93, Hilgos had completed several hundred paintings that showed off her still-sharp eye for color and her understanding of composition and expression, as seen in the image below. Her daughter notes that Hilgos also titled, signed, and dated her late work.

Hilda Gorenstein a.k.a. Hilgos, Sailing, watercolor

Hilgos was a student at the famed Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in the 1920s, and it was with AIC students that she began painting again after her Alzheimer's diagnosis. Her relationship with the students and the huge output that connection fostered in the last years of Hilgos' life became the impetus for her daughter's advocacy of art therapy for people with dementia and both the creation of the Hilgos Foundation in Highland Park and the establishment of the Hilgos Award. The award provides funding for students of the School of the Art Institute to design and engage in artistic projects with the elderly. 

Anecdotal evidence of the benefits of the foundation's innovative intergenerational project has spurred medical interest in the Hilgos story (and others'), which has led most recently to the filming of a documentary, I Remember Better When I Paint, the trailer for which appears below. The film includes Hilgos' story, other examples of how the arts seem to help improve the quality of life of persons with Alzheimer's, and interviews with neurologists seeking to understand the science behind what happens through exposure to the arts. Narrated by Olivia de Havilland, the documentary was made by French filmmaker Eric Ellena and Hilgos' daughter Berna Huebner. 



Resources

Blog

DVD of I Remember Better When I Paint

Interview with Berna Huebner (This conversation is well worth the 20 minutes it takes to listen.)

Interview with Filmmaker Eric Ellena

Late-Life Paintings by Hilgos (Prints of Hilgos' signed and dated paintings and copies of her sculpture are available for purchase through The Hilgos Foundation, 406 Woodland Road, Highland Park, Illinois 60035; 847-432-5476; hilgos@hilgos.org. The foundation also accepts donations.)

Obituary for Hilda Gorenstein, Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1998


Work of Recent Recipients of the Hilgos Award

Alzheimer's Foundation of America

Alzheimer's Reading Room

Boston University Alzheimer's Disease Center



Mark Morris Dance Group, Dance for PD℠ (Collaboration with MMDG and Brooklyn Parkinson Group)


National Center for Creative Aging

Puzzles to Remember

Articles: "When Boomers Get Dementia", The New York Times, June 2, 2010, and "Art Therapy for Alzheimer's", The Huffington Post, July 26, 2010


Cathy Malchiodi, Art Therapy Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill, August 2006)

Ellen Jantzen, "Patricia - Vanishing Mother"

Also see: "Introduction to Poetry the Film", Writing Without Paper, June 10, 2010;  "Taking Everything But Love", Guest Post at Writing Without Paper, January 13, 2010.

10 comments:

Kelly Langner Sauer said...

oh, this is just fascinating, Maureen! I'm gonna have to remember this!

M.L. Gallagher said...

You my friend remind me of the power of words and creativity and art and all things magical to change lives and perspectives and people.

thank you for all you do and all you share to make this world a better place!

cindyhan111 said...

Alzheimer's is a genetic fact in my family.

Art is a therapy for many things~ thank you for this piece, I hope people make room for more artistic expression in their lives, as it enriches us in more ways than just the physical!

I also use art to help develop emotional intelligence in my children. It works. It helps. ANNND... it's fun! :)

cindyhan111 said...

Alzheimer's is a genetic fact in my family.

Art is a therapy for many things~ thank you for this piece, I hope people make room for more artistic expression in their lives, as it enriches us in more ways than just the physical!

I also use art to help develop emotional intelligence in my children. It works. It helps. ANNND... it's fun! :)

Kathleen Overby said...

Isn't it wonderful that our imaginations stay intact till the end of a new beginning? :)

This put a soft, round edge on a sharp and painful reality.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Wow!! This is amazing--I loved reading this.

Thanks for sharing this!

Sandra said...

Thank you for this wonderful article and sharing such useful information. Planning to order the DVD of I Remember Better When I Paint on amazon - it sounds inspiring.
-Sandra

Joyceann Wycoff said...

Beautiful!! Let's hope any of our potential care takers watch this ... I want to keep being creative even when I can't remember what I'm doing.

n. davis rosback said...

very interesting

Laura said...

Maureen,
This just splits my heart wide open. I've seen it happen. These stories are so wonderful. Thank you for sharing this. I"m off to look at Hilgos' late in life paintings...